Expert Report

A Research Strategy for Environmental, Health, and Safety Aspects of Engineered Nanomaterials (2012)

Each report is produced by a committee of experts selected by the Academy to address a particular statement of task and is subject to a rigorous, independent peer review; while the reports represent views of the committee, they also are endorsed by the Academy. Learn more on our expert consensus reports.

Despite substantial research, gaps remain in understanding the environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks of nanomaterials—materials just one billionth of a meter in size—used in an array of products including drug-delivery systems, cosmetics, and food additives. With the nanotechnology sector poised to expand rapidly, there could be greater exposure of workers, consumers, and the environment to nanomaterials. As a result, there is a critical need for a research strategy to build knowledge of the unique properties of nanomaterials, this report finds.

This report sets out a conceptual framework for environmental, health, and safety research on nanomaterials, develops a research plan with short- and long-term research priorities, and estimates the resources needed to implement the plan. In a subsequent report, the committee will evaluate progress toward these goals.

Key Messages

  • The report describes four broad, high-priority research categories, with some aspects that need to be addressed in the short term (within 5 years) and others that will evolve over longer terms. The research categories are: identify and quantify nanomaterials being released and the populations and environments being exposed; understand processes that affect both potential hazards and exposure; examine nanomaterial interactions in complex systems ranging from subcellular to ecosystems; and support adaptive research and knowledge infrastructure for accelerating research progress and providing rapid feedback to advance research.
  • While surveying the status of existing resources needed to implement the research priorities, the committee concluded that there is a gap between research and associated activities funded and the level of activity that would foster greater progress toward the research priorities. The committee concluded that approximately $120 million per year over the next five years should remain for health and environmental risk research by federal agencies. Any reduction in the amount could be a setback to nanomaterials risk research.
  • A modest infusion of additional resources garnered through public, private, and international initiatives could help build infrastructure that is critical for supporting progress toward the research goals. These additional resources should be directed towards critical cross-cutting EHS research needs including: informatics ($5 million per year); nanomaterial measurement and characterization approaches ($10 million per year); benchmark nanomaterials ($3-5 million per year); characterizing nanomaterial sources ($2 million per year); and developing research networks for collaborative research and information sharing ($2 million per year). Funding in these areas should be sustained for 5 years.
  • Mechanisms are needed to ensure the research strategy is implemented effectively, to evaluate research progress, and to refine the strategy as evidence is gathered. Successful implementation of the research strategy will require improved coordination among domestic and international stakeholder groups involved in nanotechnology environmental, health, and safety research. Development of public-private partnerships could help leverage resources to advance research progress, foster independent governance, and build operational transparency into the process.
  • The structure of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI)—which has only coordination and information-sharing roles across the federal agencies and no "top-down" budgetary or management authority to direct nanotechnology-related EHS research—hinders its accountability for effective implementation of the research strategy. Effective implementation of the research strategy outlined in this report will require an entity that has sufficient management and budgetary authority to direct development and implementation of a federal EHS strategy across NNI agencies, and to ensure integration of federally supported EHS research undertaken by the private sector, the academic community, and international organizations.
  • There is a concern that the dual and potentially conflicting roles of the NNI—developing and promoting nanotechnology and its applications while also identifying and mitigating risks that arise from such applications—impede implementation and evaluation of EHS risk research. To implement the research strategy effectively, a clear separation of management and budgetary authority and accountability is needed between the functions of developing and promoting applications of nanotechnology and of understanding and assessing potential health and environmental implications.